"If they caught the owner of the Empire State Building smoking a joint in the lobby, they could take the whole building."
Jeff Kaufman began his criminal-justice career in 1980 as a beat cop for the NYPD just as the department was emerging from the budgetary crisis caused by the city's near-bankruptcy in the mid '70s. Says Jeff, "At the time, the force consisted of officers who were getting ready to retire and officers like me, young and motivated to 'take back the streets' from the 'bad guys.'" He was assigned to the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn - one of the busiest in New York City. Within a year, he would be one of the responding officers to the "Palm Sunday Massacre" of 11 people, thus introducing him to the effect of drugs and the 'War on Drugs' on his community.
In his free time, Jeff attended law school. When he passed the bar, he was transferred to the NYPD's Legal Bureau, where, among other duties, he brought cases against individuals for forfeiture of their property. Targets included both drug dealers and recreational users. But after Jeff attended the first National Conference on Asset Forfeiture in Washington, DC, he began to see just how wrong these policies were. "The conference organizers boasted that federal asset forfeiture was the only effective way to stop drugs. They claimed that if they caught the owner of the Empire State Building smoking a joint in the lobby, they could take the whole building! The [police] chiefs that accompanied me to the conference drooled with anticipation. Finally, an answer to their budget problems." Shortly thereafter, Jeff left the police department and became a defense attorney for the indigent. "My caseload rapidly swelled with drug cases, and I saw from another vantage point how the 'drug war' was destroying us. More police were hired. New tactics were utilized, where large numbers of people were caught in police sweeps and arrested without regard to our basic constitutional principles. What affected me most were the number of young people who faced draconian sentencing guidelines. Lives snuffed out by our 'drug war.'"
In the mid '90s Jeff learned about the need for teachers at a high school in the precinct in which he'd once patrolled. Originally intending to return to criminal law, he was offered a teaching position on Rikers Island, where he developed relationships the nature of which he had been unable to do as either police officer or attorney. "I taught criminal law to adolescents facing life sentences for violent crimes and drug felonies. In class, we had the opportunity to fully explore the ramifications of the 'drug war.'"